Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” is a bold and beautiful work of cinema that externalizes deeply-felt emotions onto a canvas defined by the filmmaker’s mastery of the melodrama.
Set amid the upheaval of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966-76 and its aftermath, the film follows the travails of Lu Yenshi (Chen Daoming), as he returns home to his wife and teenage daughter after a long stint in a labor camp to find that his amnesiac wife Feng (Gong Li), no longer recognizes him.
It is a quiet film comprised of slow zooms into the stars’ faces and a delicate balance of movement and stillness, sound and quiet, that collectively conveys the ways the rippling effects of such a trauma can be felt long after it’s seemingly rectified.
The movie turns around its strong sense of place and a mood of unrelenting sadness. Zhang maintains an important balance that keeps the emphasis on the actors and their remarkable abilities to convey determined grief, in Chen’s case, and an aching vulnerability, in Gong’s.
The difficulty of balancing the sort of sweeping approach that allows for painterly epic compositions — Zhang’s renditions of a propagandistic ballet and streets blanketed by white snow — and a sense of deep personal struggle, cannot be understated. Zhang has been doing this well for a long time — dating back to prominent early works such as “Raise the Red Lantern” — and he’s worked with these stars (especially Gong), plenty of times before. He understands how to translate the emotional authenticity of a situation in stark terms that mean something to his audience, without being swept away in an overwrought plot device.
It’s easy to take for granted, especially coming at a time when Zhang and the American filmmaker Todd Haynes are two of the relatively few directors making strong traditional melodramas. But you shouldn’t: this is a movie that conveys what it must in decidedly cinematic terms, and it leaves a lasting impact.